"What you doing?" the little girl asked him.
"I'm taking photos of the flowers," the man replied.
"Why?" she asked again.
"Don't bother the man, Maddy!" He looked up from the girl to the woman and smiled.
"That's okay! I'm in no hurry! Well, Maddy, the people who look after this park, asked me to take some pictures of it ... that's my job! Would you like to see, Maddy?" The little girl nodded. The man held the digital camera in front of the girl, so that she could see the preview screen. Using the controls, he scrolled through some of the pictures that he'd already taken.
"Good!" the little girl exclaimed.
"Thank you!" He addressed the woman.
"Would you like a picture of your daughter ... you as well, of course!"
" ... Well, you can take one of Maddy, if you like, but I'm ... I'm not..."
" ... You're fine!" he interjected, "Maddy first, then together...
"Do you want to sit on the seat, Maddy!" he said. With her mother's help she clambered up onto the bench.
"That's it, Lovie ... big smile now!" The shutter clicked several times in quick succession. "That's great! Now you, Mummy!" The woman moved next to the girl.
" ... Okay ... more big smiles!" He waited.
" ... Come on, Mum! I'm sure you can do better than that! That's it ... much better!"
Once again the shutter repeatedly clicked open and shut. They remained seated and he sat down next to the girl. In a few seconds they were looking at the images he'd just captured.
"Goodness!" the woman exclaimed, "Just look at me!" The man laughed softly.
"Well, I think you and your mummy both look very pretty, Maddy!" he said, "What do you think?"
"Yes!" the little girl replied, "I think my Mummy's pretty, as well!" He smiled.
"There you go, then!" he said, addressing the woman, " ... You're outvoted!" The young woman managed a smile.
" ... That's still a matter of opinion! But would it be possible to get one of those of Maddy?"
"Nothing easier! Look, we're going in the same direction ... ice creams all round?" She smiled.
"Why not! And my name's Evie, by the way!"
"Nice to meet you Evie! Mine's Owen. And if you don't mind me asking ... is Maddy short for Madeline?"
" ... No ... it's 'Madison', actually ... her daddy's choice!"
"Is that unusual? It sounds like one of those names Americans call their kids!" Owen asked her.
"You're probably right: Gary was always mad keen on anything American! But I believe that it's one of those names that's quite popular here now, too! I'm an old-fashioned 'Evelyn', but I never liked it: it was my mum's granny's name! But Owen's quite nice ... Welsh, isn't it!"
"Mmm! But I've no idea why! As far as I know, my family are all London born and bred! But you're right ... it's like my hair ... short, and easy to live with!" Evie chuckled.
" ... Here we are!" he said, as they arrived at the ice cream kiosk, "What's everyone having?" With the ice creams purchased, they stood together for a few more minutes.
"I haven't forgotten your prints, Evie; but rather than asking for an address or phone number, if you tell me when you're likely to be in the park again, I can meet you ... say, here!"
"All right ... that's a good idea! I'm taking Maddy to Gary's mum's tomorrow ... but, weather permitting ... the same time the day after!"
"Okay! I hope to see you both then: and there'll be no charge for the prints!"
"Thank you! That's very kind ... oh, and for the ice cream! Say goodbye to Owen, Maddy!"
"Bye, bye, Owen!" she said as she waved.
Owen Harper was twenty-seven years old and single. When he was ten his parents had given him an old camera that used film; and although he never took that many photos, he became an avid reader of photography books and magazines; then wherever possible after that, his school projects contained photographs, for which he received extra credits.
However, it is very hard for a teenage boy to plan a career as a photographer, so while his parents were keen to encourage his continuing hobby, they counselled him to consider another, more readily available occupation when he left school! So, although a diligent student, he had no real interest or incentive to continue his education past the age of sixteen. He reasoned, quite rightly, that if he changed his mind when he was older, there were plenty of further education courses that he could pursue at a later time.
It so happened that Owen's mother worked for Brent Council, in North London: she enquired about any jobs that might be suitable for her son, with his expected nine GCSE exam passes; and within a few months of leaving school, he found himself working for the local authority Planning Department, where he had been ever since.
His job, now, was to evaluate building applications: by first checking submissions against current building regulations; and then to submit written reports to the planning committee. But he also got to get out of the office sometimes: to check that current, ongoing building work was within the guidelines; and to take the appropriate action if it was found not to be so. He liked his job, it paid a good salary, and there was a degree of long-term security. So where did photographing flowers in the park come into it?
Well, simply, he often used photography as visual evidence in his job and he was known to be a keen and proficient amateur, so when the occasional images for council publications or their web site were required, he was sometimes asked to provide them! And so by chance, he happened to be in the park on that day!
He was considered to be quite a good-looking and presentable young guy, and despite her protests, Evie was a nice-looking young woman and he never denied that he found her attractive. But, as far as he was concerned, she had talked about Gary, Maddy's father, and she wore rings on her wedding finger, so he was under no illusion that it was anything other than a friendly encounter with a young mum in the park; who he would meet briefly, at least once more, and then in all probability, never again!
And so that evening he had gone back to his flat, where he had transferred the images from the camera to his computer. All of them, apart from those of Maddy and Evie, were then uploaded to the appropriate council department as compressed digital files. However, the best of the rest where edited slightly and then printed out and mounted in those cardboard frames that photographers use for their clients' pictures. These were then placed in a large envelope, ready for delivery to Evie when he next saw her.
They were waiting by the ice cream kiosk when he arrived, at more or less the time that they'd agreed. Maddy was already making short work of her ice cream! They were sitting on another bench and Owen joined them.
"Oh, these are lovely!" Evie exclaimed, when Owen presented her with the mounted images " ... And I only expected one of Maddy!"
"I thought Gary's mother might like copies, and I put a few in, in case your parents..."
" ... Well, thank you again!" Evie said, "Can you stay for a little while ... I didn't like the idea of you giving up your lunch to meet me, so I've brought coffee and sandwiches!"
"Then it's my turn to thank you: I'd like that! I meant to ask the other day ... how old is Maddy ... pre-school, obviously!"
"Yes: three and a half. She goes to nursery one morning a week at the moment, and then a few more when she's a bit older ... to prepare her for school in a year or so!"
"I guess you're not working at the moment, then ... Will you when Maddy's at school, full-time?"
" ... Hmm ... not sure yet! I suppose I ought to ... but at the moment I'm getting by on benefits ... my armed forces widow's payments..."
" ... Oh ... I'm so sorry, Evie! I saw your rings and just assumed! It can't have been long ago..."
"No, Maddy was two, so she doesn't really remember Gary: but I've got pictures, of course!" She sighed. "He was just an ordinary infantryman. He'd signed up for twelve years, but he would probably have stayed in longer! He loved the lifestyle ... I hated it! I suppose that makes me sound very selfish!"
"No, not at all! Nobody who doesn't live with that situation can know what it's like ... and at least he was doing something he loved; while you could only stay behind and wonder and wait! Please don't tell me any more than you want to, Evie ... but I'm assuming that he was killed in action!"
Maddy was sitting between them. Having finished her ice cream, she was now chewing happily on a sandwich.
"No, that's okay! As long as you don't mind listening! He was on patrol and there was an explosion. They told me it was quick and he wouldn't have known ... which is good, I suppose! And again ... this might sound horrible, Owen, but I'm glad! Not that he died: but that he didn't have to live with terrible injuries! He would have hated that! As you can imagine, soldiers need to be fit, and he never liked sitting around doing nothing! And our married life was always very ... er... 'physical'! I don't know exactly what his injuries were ... I never wanted to ... but I know it involved internal injuries and loss of limbs!
"His parents and I disagreed about afterwards: they wanted a grave to visit; but I wanted a cremation! I got my way, but even though they have his remains, things can still be a bit frosty sometimes when I go round there with Maddy: but they've been very good, and they have the right to see her regularly!" She looked at her watch.
"Goodness! Haven't you got to be back at work, Owen! It's been nice talking to you; but I don't want to get you into trouble with your bosses!"
" ... That's okay! I'm out of the office this afternoon, anyway! Look, Evie, this is a little awkward, especially after what you've just told me: but would you care to meet up again, socially, sometime! I have no ties, and however much you love your daughter, I'm sure that a little more grown-up company wouldn't be unwelcome!" She looked a little coy, but she looked at him and said:
"I'd like that, Owen!"
"All right! If you give me a number, I'll call you tonight and we can chat some more and hopefully arrange something!" He put her number straight into his phone. "Later, then, Evie! Bye, bye, Maddy!" The little girl smiled and waved.
"Bye, bye, Owen!"
Evie Manning was twenty-eight now. When she was young, free, and single, her parents had warned her about getting involved with soldiers: but she was young and pretty, and they'd always held a certain fascination for her; and Gary was very handsome and filled with a soldier's self-assurance. And of course when she first met him he was out of uniform and she didn't know that he was in the army. It may not have been love at first sight, but by the time that she woke up in his bed the next day ... after the most incredible night of sex that she'd ever experienced ... she was smitten!
And it wasn't just a one night stand: they stayed in bed for almost three days before his leave was up, and he made her promise to write to him as soon as he was back at barracks! They wrote several times a week, and although he wasn't the most articulate of men, he still wrote lovely, sweet, funny letters. At the end of his next leave he proposed. It wasn't the big, white wedding that she'd dreamed of as a girl; but it was a nice military ceremony with her parents and new in-laws ... and lots of soldiers in smart dress uniforms!
Evie found out that she was pregnant the day before he was due to leave on his first overseas tour of duty. Gary was happy for both reasons ... but although very happy to have what she had suspected confirmed, she was also feeling very vulnerable! The everyday realities of being a soldier's wife were already known to her by then; but at least he was still there! But now she faced the real possibility that she was going to be alone for most or the whole of the pregnancy ... and he wouldn't be there at the time when she needed him most!
After Maddy was born, although Gary was a good and loving father and husband; Evie always had the feeling that he was restless at home and couldn't wait to be deployed again: 'To do the things that a soldier's meant to do!' he said.
What a soldier's meant to do, is look after his family, she thought ... but she never told him that!
Maddy was about a year and ten months old when Gary kissed them both goodbye before boarding the transport plane with his happy, smiling mates. Kissed them and said goodbye for the last time...
When she'd had to leave her army accommodation, Evie had moved to the London Borough of Brent: it was where Gary had grown up and his parents still lived there. Evie's parents weren't so far away, in Stanmore: but things had become a little strained between them; especially when she'd declined their invitation to take Maddy there to live! She now rented a privately owned, two-bedroom flat, on the ground floor of a large converted Victorian villa-type house, with access to the garden for Maddy, in what seemed like a nice area! She didn't want to live right on top of her in-laws, either; but on a nice day she could walk there in under an hour; and when the weather prevented walking, she could just about afford a cab.
Although Evie knew that she probably shouldn't, she'd thought about Owen a lot since that first day in the park, and while she would never have admitted it to herself, she was actually thrilled when he'd asked if he could see her again! She didn't know where, if anywhere, it would lead ... but she kind of hoped it would be somewhere! But she wasn't going to be rushed this time.
He didn't know what time Maddy went to bed, or whether Evie would be tired, so Owen rang about eight o'clock on that day they'd met again. He was very easy to talk to, as she'd thought he would be ... knowledgeable about a lot of things, but modest with it ... but also a very good listener, and with a wry sense of humour! After talking for more than an hour, they agreed that he would go to her flat, to spend time together and get to know each other better; and if that was mutually enjoyable, they could then think about getting a baby-sitter for Maddy and going out somewhere another time.
Evie was nervous: she and Maddy had bathed, and then she had deliberated over what to wear. It was not usually a problem: she had lots of sloppy-casual clothes, and she hadn't had to worry about making an effort for some time! She wanted to make a good impression, of course ... but not that she was trying too hard ... So keep it simple, she thought.
A simple skirt: not too long, not too short; but no tights, which she never wore at home anyway. And a simple, short-sleeve blouse ... Underwear ... Hmm! He would probably to able to see her bra through the blouse: so nothing too low-cut; but nothing too frumpy, either! Knickers: why was she even thinking about them! She didn't think that he'd expect to see them; so just something comfortable!
Maddy was in bed by seven and she rarely woke up once she was asleep; but by now Evie's hearing was well-attuned to her daughter's sounds. Owen had said that, rather than ring the doorbell when he arrived, he would call her mobile phone when he had parked his car; but that she could keep it on vibrate, and he'd only let it 'ring' a couple of times and then he'd wait by the door until she opened it!
Eight-thirty, he'd said. She had been holding her phone in her hand since twenty-five-past ... but she still jumped and nearly dropped it when she first felt the vibrations and heard the buzzing.
"Hi, Evie!" Stepping into the hall he stooped and kissed her chastely on the cheek.
"I hope you like freesias! I can photograph flowers, but I don't know much about them ... but I thought they were quite pretty and they have a nice smell!"
"Thank you!" she said, returning his kiss, " ... They're lovely! Please come in, would you like a coffee, or tea, if you prefer!"
"I'll have coffee, please!"
The sitting room door was open, but he followed her through to the kitchen at the back, past a closed door which he guessed might be her bedroom, and another, slightly ajar, with a soft, glowing light visible, which must be Maddy's.
"The bathroom..." she said, indicating a door with two, narrow, frosted-glass panels set into the top half.
"Nice flat!" he said, "I live in that block, not far from the new Wembley stadium: it's okay, but not as cosy as a house! And this one's bigger, but quite similar to where I was brought up!"
He tried not to stare, but he liked what he saw! She was still as pretty as in the park, but having lost a layer of clothing, she looked slimmer than he remembered. Evie was thinking the same sort of thing: she'd only ever seen him in a suit, which was very nice, but dressed casually, he seemed 'softer' somehow! They carried the coffees back to the sitting room and then sat together on the comfy sofa.
There was no point trying to make the place look super-tidy ... it was a home with a toddler! It was now second-nature for Evie to look where she was walking: but as usual, as soon as Maddy was in bed, she went around picking up toys and other potential tripping hazards! And also as is usual in homes with young children, most other loose objects are placed out of the reach of inquisitive fingers!
As Evie had said, the walls had several photographs in frames hanging on them: Gary in uniform; Gary and Evie; Evie with new-born Maddy; and Gary with slightly older baby daughter. Owen could see Gary's appeal: he was a very good-looking guy! But he thought that he liked the new mother and baby image best: perhaps she was sad because her husband had missed the birth; but there was still that unmistakable look of love in her eyes as she held the precious life in her arms!
They only talked. When Evie went to make another drink, Owen went to the bathroom ... a very feminine bathroom; sweet smelling, and with the ever-present children's toys! When she returned with their drinks, she edged closer on the sofa, and there were no objections when his arm went around her shoulder! She remembered those carefree days of her late-teens and early-twenties: when it was almost obligatory for boys to stay the night; and a part of her really wished that he could...
" ... So how do you feel now about leaving Maddy with someone for a few hours? I can always book an early table in a restaurant, and we needn't stay out too long. Do you have any friends in the area, or perhaps Gary's mother ... or do think that would be awkward? Have you been out with anyone else since..."
" ... Let me have a think about it, Owen! I'd like to go out with you; but I think if it's anyone, it will probably have to be Gary's mum! I don't think I could relax if Maddy was with a stranger! The best thing that I can do, is the next time I'm round there, I'll tell her that I want to go out with a very nice man that I've met, and then see what her reaction is! She may not be very happy about it, but I think she'd rather spend time with Maddy than refuse! But if she seems to have a very negative reaction, we'll have to have a rethink about going out ... but I do want to see you again, Owen! Maybe you can also come round again before then; possibly a little earlier, before I put Maddy to bed, and we can eat here! Have you made any plans for tomorrow?"
"No, no plans. And I like your ideas! I could come straight from work ... do you want me to ring first?"
"No, that won't be necessary: and rather than wear your work clothes all evening, you can shower and change when you get here, if you like!"
Owen stayed until about eleven-thirty. Their goodnight kiss was not exactly passionate; but it was enough to suggest that there might be more to come!
Evie opened the door with her daughter in her arms.
"Hello, Owen!" the little girl said.
"Hello, Maddy!" He looked at Evie.
"Hi!" he said, simply; but the look he gave her said much more than what came out of his mouth.
"Did you want to shower and change while I'm getting tea?" Evie asked him, "You can leave your clothes in my bedroom, and you'll find towels in the bathroom!"
"Okay! I shouldn't be long: which is your room?"
"You can borrow my robe if you like: it's hanging on the door. Come on, Maddy ... come and help Mummy cook!"
Owen took off his suit and hung it on a hanger he'd brought with him. His other clothes were put into a plastic bag, which went into the holdall, from which he'd taken out the ones he was going to put on, which he left on the bed. Evie's towelling robe probably came below the knee on her, but above his ... but there was still ample material to wrap around his bigger frame: he recognised her aroma. They exchanged smiles as he passed the open kitchen door. He took his deodorant out of the robe's pocket before he took it off and hung it behind the door, then he reached into the bath and turned on the water, before standing under the hot shower jets. His shower at home was faster, but this one did the job! After he'd dressed in blue jeans and a dark-green T-shirt, he stopped outside the kitchen.
"You look nice and refreshed!" Evie said, "Why don't you wait in the sitting room ... the table's laid and I'll only be a few more minutes!"
Maddy was happily playing a game that only she knew what was involved! Owen sat on the sofa. She was quite comfortable around him, and she then played that game where she took something to show Owen, he asked her what it is, and then she left it with him and got something else!
Evie came in carrying a tray, which she put on the table. Maddy was too big for a high chair, so Evie built her chair up with several cushions, then sat her at the table.
"It's nothing fancy," she said to her guest, " ... just filling!"
Owen had cooked for just himself ever since he'd left home, so he knew exactly what she meant! He often got home from work in the evening, wanting nothing more than food that was quick to prepare, and hopefully tasty; so he either had a takeaway, or cooked something tried and tested!
Maddy was naturally curious and asked questions and chatted away about random things, as children do. As Owen had said, it wasn't really conversation, just an assortment of, to him, unconnected thoughts ... the secret was just to answer the questions as they occurred and not to look for any developing thread! Oddly, perhaps, Maddy never asked why Owen was there and eating with them!
After the meal they all sat and played together ... and again Owen discovered that flexibility was the key! But then Evie said:
"You don't mind waiting while we have a bath, do you, Owen! It's usually easier if we get in together! I shouldn't be long!"
"No, that's fine! And I'll wash up for you while you're in there! I don't know where everything goes, but I can leave them on your drainer!"
"Thank you ... if you don't mind! Come on, Poppet! Bath time! We can see Owen again in a little while!"
So while Evie took Maddy to her bedroom to both get undressed, and to put on her robe ... she would usually not have to bother, of course ... Owen piled the dirty dishes onto the tray, which he carried into the kitchen, where they joined the used saucepans and cooking utensils in hot, soapy water!
Maybe it was Owen's organised mind, but although he didn't like housekeeping much, he quite liked the process of washing and drying things up, then putting them away afterwards. And when only cooking for one, it was often easier to it as you went along, rather than leaving it until later! He worked quickly and methodically, and it was done before Evie and Maddy were, so he sorted out the things for making coffee and left them ready for later.
He was in the sitting room, on the sofa, waiting patiently, when a little naked girl scampered into the room, followed by her robe-clad mother.
"Hey, Miss!" she said, "Owen doesn't want to see you all nudie!" Me, perhaps, but not you, she was thinking. " ... Come and get your jammies on, Baby! Ten minutes, Owen...
"I see you've got the coffee things ready!" she said, when they came back again, "If you can entertain Madam, I'll make it! Why don't you show Owen your new book, Darling!" Maddy trotted off to get the book, and when she returned she climbed up next to him.
"It's called 'Frogs'," she said, "You have to make the sounds!"
So for the next few minutes Owen sat making assorted 'croaks' and 'ribbets' as they turned the pages of the book together. Evie just stood in the doorway, smiling, for a few moments, before she brought the coffee over. It's probably still too soon, she told herself; but she did like watching Owen being everything that she'd once hoped that her husband would learn to be!
Maddy even gave him a kiss before she went to bed! Owen wasn't really used to children, but he didn't mind them.
"Do you want me to carry you, or Mummy?" he asked her.
"You..." she replied, her arms around his neck. Evie led the way. "Night, night, Owen!" she said, kissed his cheek, then allowed him to lay her down.
"Goodnight, Darling. Sleep tight!" Evie said, after she'd kissed her daughter. Back on the sofa again, they sat close together.
"I'm going to Gary's parents tomorrow, Owen. We'll probably stay for tea, but I'll be home in the evening if you want to ring. And depending on what they say, perhaps you can make a provisional restaurant booking somewhere for Friday. I haven't known you long, and I do think we ought to take our time: but I'd definitely like you to be a part of mine and Maddy's lives! She likes you and I trust you!"
"That's okay! You can't afford to do anything just because you might want to; and I know that she's the most important person in your life, and probably always will be. But don't forget, all this is new to me, too, so I'll take a while to adapt ... but I'd like to try, if that's all right with you!"
"Of course! But I think you ought to know, Owen ... you're doing really well so far!"
She waited until they were in the hall before saying goodnight, and before she kissed him properly for the first time ... she just didn't trust herself to do it earlier! But they both parted that night wanting more ... much more!